- It’s always good to bet on the goodness and mercy of God. This political crisis is his doing.
- Blessed (still) are the peacemakers.
I voted to remain and felt like I’d been punched.
Somebody sat on the Fast Forward button
Why we do what we do
Stephen Pinker’s wonderfully stimulating book The better angels of our nature calls them our ‘inner demons’:
‘A small number of quirks in our cognitive and emotional makeup give rise to a substantial proportion of avoidable human misery.’ 1. Humanists see them as products of evolution; Christians, as aspects of fallenness.
Below I have compared these Five Deadly Quirks with the Beatitudes, as taught by Christ. It’s interesting how directly Jesus addresses them; how prevalent they are; and how vital to fight them.[table “” not found /]
In search of a word as good as ‘lunch’.
I used to work as an editor on a Christian magazine and I remember writing this:
On my desk I have words cemented together in monster monologues like communist-era apartment blocks, flat and impenetrable, not for humans. I have ugly words (maximised) and phrases that should never have been born (first and foremost) crawling out of my piled-up papers like cockroaches.
I never seem to meet the subtle, the pert, the playful, the resonant-with-life words. (Lunch. Hug. Wry. Fragrant. Squidgy.) Instead, alarmingly, the banal presses in, all around. “To me,” writes one earnest contributor, “Life is a journey.” Perhaps this will be helpful to your readers.
‘Not really sure’
‘Not for me’
‘I’d rather put my head in a food mixer.’
Some of this might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, on genuinely irritating habits of Christians such as:
I do believe, however, that some irritating habits I see in some of my fellow Christians are worth nurturing. Here are three. If only I could:
Grace. Refusing to speak ill of people. Introducing a positive note in the office just when morale is at its most deliciously dismal. Not bearing grudges or engaging in satisfying acts of minor malice or revenge. Doing the coffee cups. Not assassinating people behind their backs. Buying the biscuits.
Certainty. ‘I have become one of those annoying people who is sure God loves him. Goodness and mercy will follow me all my days. God will not stop doing good to me. My death will see my longings fulfilled, my tears wiped away and possibly my nose blown. I know I deserve none of this and I agree you are as good a person as me. Sorry if you find that irritating in some way.’
A light touch. Aw, I wish I had this. And I wish the millions of people banging away on keyboards in their bedrooms had this. God save us from point-by-point refutations.
Satire should, like a polished razor keen
Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen
(Mary Wortley Montague, quoted in Stephen Pinker p 766.)
A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.
Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.
Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.
We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again. Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:
‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?
Stephen’s Pinker’s wonderful book The Better Angels of our Nature describes the fall in violence over thousands of years. You have to read the book if you don’t believe me, but I find it convincing.
For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.
We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.
Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.
So, violence has declined.
Pinker has five general reasons:
I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.
I find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example) fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.
(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)
It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.
But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.
Evangelists, and apostolic, entrepreneurial Christian types generally, seem to be the unsettling opposite of ‘slow mission.’ They dash about. The apostle Paul seemed always to be in a hurry.
This can make the rest of us feel uneasy. These people are out evangelizing the world while we are digging allotments, playing games, visiting Aunts or watching cricket. Do they show up us slow mission types as wicked, lazy servants?
Here’s why that isn’t—or at least might not be—the case.
1. We all have to share the planet and be good neighbours.
2. We all agree (I think) that humans are both wonderful and ‘born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward.’ We disagree why. Is it because we are created good and fell from God (as the Christian account has it) or because our intelligence and reasoning skills sit atop a brain still programmed by (some) unhelpful routines that evolved millions of years ago? Is that even different? Either way, we have a shared space to explore celebrations and remedies.
3. We can enrich each other. I have to admit that Christians (with some notable exceptions like the Quakers and the Salvation Army) have not historically been the leading proponents of fighting for some things that are now commonly held as precious, such as gender equality. Christians tend to put up with things rather than upset them. Sometimes, radical, pioneering atheists force me to go back and ask fresh questions of the Bible. They challenge sloppy thinking. Which can only be good. Perhaps we Christians can return the favour, because I have to report that sometimes in my observation the champions of pure reason do trip on their own shoelaces, especially in the face of Christ.
4. I’d like to hear the best things that atheism has to offer; and like to offer the best things I know of Christ in return. So our debate is about our comparing our good points, more than dredging up our bad.
5. In all this, it is quite fun winding each other up. At least atheists are interested in God, which is more than I can say for most people in the West.
6. We can convert each other, which is a lot more possible in a place of peaceful dialogue than trench warfare, lobbing chosen texts at each other. And this is a good thing, a free-market in ideas.
A book wot I wrote for atheists and Christians to enjoy.